It might seem to you that I’ve been rather quiet on the blogging/writing front in the last month. Turns out that this is because in fact, I’ve actually been frantically busy on the writing front …

When it comes to my budding writing career, May turned out to be the busiest and most frantic months work of all time. Not particularly profitable, mind you – but extremely valuable in terms of what I’ve learnt about writing both fiction and non-fiction, which I thought I should share. (Even though the writing concerned is on motorsports, don’t let you put that off – the subject matter I was writing about is almost irrelevant to the wider themes of this blog post. Honest. Trust me!)

Long-time readers of this blog will know that I’ve been writing “race reports” of various motorsports events for many years, originally for The WELL online community, then briefly on this blog before being spun out to a separate companion blog; it was an outlet for my frustrating writing aspirations, and I thought it would help improve my quality of writing (it did) and also train me to be able to sit down and actually produce writing on demand rather than sitting in front of a blank screen feigning writer’s block – and the whole NaNoWriMo experience last November proved just how effectively all these years of writing pieces effectively on a tight deadline really had been in making it comparatively easy to sit down and Just Do It when it mattered.

In the middle of last year I was asked by a professional motorsports website called crash.net if I would ‘syndicate’ some of my material there as well as they were without a correspondent covering NASCAR Sprint Cup, IndyCar and GP2. Since I was writing these pieces anyway it was a no-brainer to cross-post the material there as well, but now it meant that I had a vastly increased audience for these pieces. Where before I’d been writing purely for my own entertainment (even if the WordPress stats told me a few dozen people might actually be reading these things), it was nothing compared to the audience that the pieces were now in front of, and who were not afraid to make their feelings known on any aspect of what was being written about (or how it was written.)

It’s a scientific axiom that the mere act of observation changes the thing that’s being observed, and that’s certainly true here: I had to start considering how these were being written, what the audience might be interested in, how to best deliver a good coverage to them.

Very quickly, the limitations of delivering ‘just’ a race report after that week’s event were evident. It’s rather like producing a film that consists of just an extended action sequence: from the minute the curtain goes up, it’s all explosions, fist fights, gun flights, yelling. But you have no idea what’s going on, what they’re fighting about, who the good guys are – it’s just sound and fury, signifying absolutely nothing at all. It might be viscerally thrilling for the first two or three minutes, but by ten you’ll just have a headache. By 15 you’ll have walked out, no matter how good a narrative depiction of the events of the action sequence are rendered.

That’s because in order to work, the action sequence needs two things: context and character. And just as it’s true in fiction (whether cinema, TV, stage or novels) so it’s true in making the journalism work. The only difference is that whereas in a film or book all the parts would be in one piece of work, here the oeuvre would have to consist of dozens and hundreds of individual pieces contributing to the overall whole. And just to add to the difficulty, I would have no idea from one day to another what tomorrow’s storylines would be, and yet still had to knit them together into something that overall would provide all that necessary context and character regardless.

Just like a novelist, that meant identifying storylines that would be of interest to people, and identifying characters that could be introduced, fleshed out and followed – so that when it came to the races themselves, the activity would mean something. People might actually care what was going on, rather than just being expected to follow descriptions of on-track race activity no matter how well (or not) it was written.

So now my brief had fleshed out to finding interesting news stories, following them through, producing driver profiles and interviews, and other background material such as explanations of the history of an event or how the rules worked. It was all the context and character that anyone would need to have to invest in anything else we went on to produce in out motorsports coverage. It was a lot more work than originally envisaged, but it would be worth it.

Then along came May, and suddenly it all went a little bit berserk with a classic case of “scope creep” writ large.

The original idea with my crash.net submissions, you’ll remember, was to provide a race coverage for three different series, with an average of one race every 1-2 weeks. No problem. Except that at the start of May, a development meant that a former F1 world champion would be going to the US to try his hand at NASCAR. Obviously we wanted to cover that because he’s got huge name recognition among F1 fans that form the bulk of crash.net‘s audience and who would want and expect to read about it (and from my point of view it was also a way of potentially growing the audience for the site’s NASCAR section.)

Trouble is, he wasn’t going into NASCAR Sprint Cup – the series we covered. He was going in two levels down (“Truck”), so suddenly we had to provide at least baseline coverage of that series to provide the same sort of context and background I was previously talking about developing. And then there’s a mid-series (“Nationwide”) which we thought we should cover just in case he tried that out while he was there (and indeed he did). So suddenly we were covering three NASCAR series rather than just one, and overarching all of that was the need for specific “pop-out” focus coverage of the F1 champion meta-story. It increased the NASCAR output by at least three-fold.

Which would still have been fine if it hadn’t coincided with the Indianapolis 500, America’s biggest motor racing event of the year. Where most motor race events consist of a few hours of practice on a Friday, an hour or two of qualifying on the Saturday, and the race itself on the Sunday, the Indy 500 was a completely different level: a full day of rookie orientation to cover, then seven days of practice, followed by an entire weekend of qualifying and then a full week of build-up before the race itself. Where a normal race weekend would consist of perhaps ten hours of track activity, the Indy 500 was scheduled to deliver nearly nine times that amount in under three weeks in a non-stop daily rotation.

Where NaNoWriMo is regarded as a Big Ask because it requires writers to commit to producing something like 1700 words every day for a month, suddenly the cumulative effect of all this context, character and scope creep meant that most days in May was requiring between 4000 and 6000 words of reporting on an average day of coverage (this blog post, which may well feel interminable to you, dear reader, is a relatively succinct and concise 2300 by contrast.) Even if you were just able to sit down at a keyboard and start typing, that’s a lot of work each and every day.

And the thing with reporting rather than fiction/creative writing is that you can’t sit there pummelling away at the keyboard producing everything out of your imagination. You have to know what you’re talking about and it has to be accurate, which means an awful lot of research work on top of the actual writing: finding the facts, sifting through them – which takes a lot of time.

The Indianapolis 500 qualification is a particular case in point: it has the most bizarre, unintelligible process I’ve ever seen, called “Bump Day” (it’s protected from a rational overhaul by the historical reverence Americans have for the Indy 500 as a whole, which celebrated its centennial this week.) I confess that coming into it, I didn’t understand it. I didn’t have to cover it last year, and looking back at other people’s reports it made absolutely no sense to me. I soon found out why: I tried researching it and couldn’t find any consistency in explanations among all the sources; even the official IndyCar.com guidance on it turned out to be inaccurate when it came to the actual day. It seems that there’s a certain amount of “making it up on the spur of the moment” that goes with it, and unless you actually sit through it all and follow virtually every moment it’s almost impossible to understand it fully, and if you don’t understand it then you certainly can’t explain it with any confidence or clarity to the people relying on your account in turn.

As a result, in the last few weeks, most of my time spent not writing has instead been catching up via streaming Internet radio stations, blogs and Twitter feeds covering the events that I’m writing about; I’ve also found some great podcasts which have been perfect in adding to my understanding and to the authenticity of what I produce, plus I’m receiving a ton of emails every day which are press releases from the various teams and venues involved which need going through for usable material. Just reading through the various driver and team PR quotes after a day’s activity looking for those one or two lines to bring a report to life – making a character live on the page, or having them provide a description of events from their point of view – can take an age, but is inevitably worth it when it pays off.

My writing has become a lot more informed and nuanced thanks to immersing myself in the culture of the IndyCar and NASCAR worlds, but it’s meant that for every hour I’ve spent writing I’ve spent almost two in background and prep work: I’ve taken up going off for two-hour walks on most days just so I can take my podcasts with me for a good listen. In the past I’d naively assumed that I was good enough that I could get by without this sort of hard graft, but now I can really see just how much it adds to the quality of the end result if you invest the time and effort to really know your subject. (Yes, experienced journalists will be rolling their eyes and doing “durrrr!” and not without good cause. All I can say is that everyone needs to learn the lesson themselves to really take it to heart.)

So if anyone’s been wondering where I’ve gone, why I hadn’t been tweeting or blogging or emailing as much as usual in the last month, that’s why – and I just hope the end effort over on crash.net justifies the time and effort that has gone into it.

Anyway, it’s all done now, and there’s a lot of writing been done over the last two weeks that I have to say – with all due humility – I’m immensely proud of, pieces that I can read back after just a few days or a week later and actually think: “Ooooh that’s good,” either because the original seed of an idea was a nice original twist or simply because the execution has lifted what in other places had seemed to be a rather dull, flat, uninteresting piece and made it something genuinely interesting. (If you want to check out any of this stuff, just go to the IndyCar, NASCAR and GP2 sections of crash.net and read from the archives.)

What this has all taught me is how much sheer hard work covering real events properly can actually be. By contrast with this sort of reporting work, fiction writing is positively a breeze. Small wonder that so many newspaper journalists, having spent years honing their craft, then go on to become such fabulous novelists and look so darn happy about it: it’s far easier than all that slogging away in the reporting trenches and pays better to boot.

I don’t pretend to be suddenly a world class journalist just because of a few weeks of hard work covering some motor races. But it’s certainly made me appreciate some things a lot more about what writers go through day in and day out to produce quality journalistic coverage of events.

It’s also made me appreciate my own abilities to pull this off, and I think I’m a better writer because of having had the chance to do this. Plus, at the end of the day, I still love the subject matter as much as I ever have. In fact, even more so having had the chance to properly immerse myself in it all.

At some point I’ll have to surface back in reality, but the Month of May Motorsport Madness has for me been quite magical – but I am certainly ready for a few days rest now!

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So today sees the British go to vote on a variety of local and devolved issues – and, on a national level, on the referendum regarding a proposed change to the voting system to Alternative Voting (AV).

I refer you to the icon that accompanies this post as to which way I’ll be voting on the matter. Those of a sensitive anti-AV disposition should look away now.

Here in London, the referendum is the only game in town for voters – there are no local or regional elections here this year – and so the pundits are expecting an all-time low turn out for any vote in the capital as a result. That in itself is a huge indictment of the state of our democracy: that so few people can be bothered to turn out on a vote on how elections themselves should work. Is it that people don’t care? Don’t think it’s important? Don’t understand it? Wilfully want to thumb their noses at politicians?

Personally I’ve always voted, in every single election that I’ve been eligible for. I regard it as a privilege, a right and a responsibility to do so. And especially after the last few months where we’ve seen people rising up through the Middle East against dictatorial regimes for their right to have their voice heard, our ability to vote should be resonating even strongly than usual: but sadly it appears that isn’t the case. We’re bored with having to make decisions for ourselves it seems, and apparently find it hard to understand things even when we are spoon-fed.

Often it’s been argued that people are disenchanted with democracy because they go to the polling station and get the same old tired options, or often no option at all because they live in an area that skews toward Conservative or Labour (or even Liberal Democrat in a few seats) and so it’s obvious who is going to win, their vote won’t matter either way, why should they bother turning up? And that certainly is one of the issues with First Past The Post (FPTP), which is why people campaigning for electoral reform had such great hopes that overhauling the system would allow people more choice and more ability to accurately express what they want from their political leaders.

Well, it turns out what if you give the country the chance to overhaul the system, they don’t want to. So I guess the overwhelming majority of people feel that FPTP does give them the kind of governance that they want and political representatives who do what they say. If you’re voting for FPTP today, then you’re voting for the status quo and you should henceforth refrain from criticising the parties, the MPs, the politicians and the political system for the rest of your time on Earth. You had your chance; you fumbled the ball. Game over.

A couple of years ago you would have thought political reform that gave voters more sensitive control over their leaders would have been a slam dunk, what with the expenses scandal and the general dissatisfaction with the state of the country in both an economic and political sense. So were did it all go wrong for the pro-AV camp?

For one thing it’s been a lamentable “Yes” campaign. It’s not been coherent, and if I hear another strained, over-baked analogy trying to explain the AV system this year I’ll simply scream. What, we’re too dumb these days to understand something unless it’s preceded by the words “It’s as if …” before an even more confusing illustration than the thing it is trying to explain?

And the pro-AV camp certainly blundered big time when they positioned the initial campaign as a way of “getting rid of useless MPs” … “make them work harder for you” – because then every local representative felt slighted by the insinuation and the association, and why should they then bust a gut campaigning with you to get AV introduced? And moreover, it was a slap in the face to everyone who voted last time: “look, you screwed up with who you elected last time, you dumb pleb, so here’s how we’re going to fix it for you” doesn’t win many friends among the voters, either.

Sadly, the biggest factor in this referendum has been the current Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government. People who criticise Nick Clegg for what has happened over the past year miss how much he needed to prove that coalition governments were possible and even preferable if he was to have had any chance of getting people to vote for a system more inclined to produce election results without a majority winner. If the Lib Dems had refused to go into coalition then the whole viability of a non-FPTP system would have been open for question; and if, having gone into coalition, the thing had broken down in fights and acrimony then the electorate would have been forgiven for thinking that such outcomes had to be avoided at all possible costs in future. And so Clegg has ended up here in May 2011 where for all his good intentions he had managed to wreck his own personal credibility, that of his party – and yes, even that of coalitions and alternative voting systems after all. The way to hell is indeed paved with good intentions.

With everyone unsure what this whole AV thing actually meant, the ‘No’ camp always had the upper hand. When people are uncertain about anything, they’ll vote to stay where they are. It’s always easier to get people to vote against something than for something, which is why Britain’s only other national referendum – on EEC membership, in 1975 – cannily waited until we were in the EEC and then asked if we should leave: 67% voted to stay where we were. If the vote had been taken in 1971 before we joined, then I’m quite convinced a similar 67% would have voted not to join at all.

Voters will always take the “better the devil you know” line unless the current devil is really, really bad. And no one can really argue that FPTP is catastrophically bad, because we’ve seen with our own eyes for nearly two hundred years that it actually does a pretty acceptable job. It’s not perfect, perhaps, and it has its faults – but we know those faults, and familiarity breeds a cosy acceptance after so many years, so we’re happy now to muddle along with it.

Whereas AV would be a step in the unknown, and “No” campaigners can project into that black “unknown” void any sort of primal terror they want, and it seems no one can disprove it because it’s new and unknown. Hence the blatant lies about “It’ll cost £250m and wreck the economy!” or “It’ll let the BNP/al-Qaeda/your terrorist group of choice in!” or simply “It’s the end of thousands of years of democracy as we know it!” and people might not necessarily believe it, but it’ll still leave the uncertainty in their minds and so they’ll default to their safe, happy place when it comes to voting in today’s referendum so that they’ll stick with the current system.

It’s amazing how little people seem able to see through the “fear of the unknown” argument. Londoners who accepted and understood AV quite happily as the system for choosing their Mayor suddenly seem to regard it as an unknown hostile alien entity. Millions of people who vote in Big Brother, X-Factor and Britain’s Got Talent quite happily seem convinced that they’ll never understand exactly the same system when applied to politics. It’s amazing how politicians and the media have persuaded huge swathes of the electorate how cretinous they are, that we believe a system the likes of which works quite happily in Australia and New Zealand (actually, those are much more complicated systems as it happens) are beyond the understanding of us mere Brits. What new level of national self-loathing have we reached to bring us to this?

Yes, AV might end up letting parties such as the BNP get representation in local councils – but of course, so did FPTP, and civilisation didn’t fall. Moreover, people should be able to vote for parties they want and not get shut out of having their views represented simply because there’s a bullying majority (and sometimes a majority of no more than 30% of the electorate) who feel that such views aren’t decent and shouldn’t be heard. That sort of suppression of people’s views and beliefs is fundamentally undemocratic and is one of the reasons why FPTP fails in my mind. Believing in democracy means believing that the BNP should have a fair crack of getting elected if their voting support warrants it, for as long as the BNP remains a legal political party in this country. You might not like their ideology (and I most certainly don’t) but democracy is about letting views that you disagree with, often passionately so, get a fair airing and a fair chance at the polling station. It’s up to those of us who disagree with such parties to marshal our arguments against them and make sure they don’t succeed, not to rely on a stacked electoral system to do our job for us.

AV isn’t the perfect Holy Grail version of proportional representation that campaigners have wanted and called for over the years. It was a “don’t scare the horses” compromise that the Liberal Democrats could get their Conservative coalition partners to agree to, and more importantly one they thought they could explain to the UK without getting everyone frightened about the end of the world as we know it. But at least AV would have started the momentum and proved there were options and alternatives and it would have been possible to carry on the debate: a “No” vote today shuts the door on the issue for a generation, just as the EEC referendum is seem as the final word on membership of the EU nearly 40 years on.

It turns out the reformers were over-estimating us after all, and that people will shy away from even the mildest unknown and prefer to stick with the flawed. As someone who genuinely believes in democracy and the will of the people, I can’t really argue with the outcome – it’s the will of the people, expressed in a fair and open vote, and that’s all I ever ask for. I’m just sad today that fear of the unknown should drown out the hope for better, and that people in the UK too often settle for second best and what they have rather than working, striving and hoping for more and better. If anyone wants to understand the fundamental difference between UK and US politicians, it is this: that in the US, they actually believe in the American Dream and Manifest Destiny and that things will be better tomorrow that they are today; whereas here, we are perpetually frightened of letting yesterday slip away because tomorrow will surely be worse. It must be so: it says so in the Daily Mail.

There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why?

I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?

– Robert Kennedy

In the meantime, I’m off to the polling station to vote. As there are only two options, it’s not a vote that would itself be changed by a switch from FPTP to AV so I can’t really cry foul. But I’ll be sticking with my pro-electoral reform beliefs that I’ve held for over twenty years, no matter how doomed they are, because even if the end result is indeed overwhelmingly for the status quo it still matters that we show how many millions of people aren’t satisfied with that. The more “Yes” voters who turn out today the more chance there is that someday the issue will be revisited and tackled properly. So even if it’s a lost cause in 2011, it still matters that people register their thoughts and beliefs today so that they may be recorded into history and used by posterity accordingly.

Go on. Just go out there and vote. Whichever way you vote and however you feel about the issue. Because either way, it really is too damn important to just sit there on your backside again.

When I stumbled across the news online last night that actress Elisabeth Sladen had died last night, it was one of those moments when the effect was literally physical and left me reeling with shock for hours afterwards. How is it possibly that such a vibrant, lively, alive person is suddenly no longer with us?

Her most famous character, Sarah Jane Smith, was not the first Doctor Who companion that I remember – that would have been Jo Grant, and I remember how upset my six-year-old self was when Jo departed the series (to live in Wales! With an environmentalist nut! How can this be allowed to happen?!) Imagine how bad it was the following year when “my” Doctor, Jon Pertwee, also left – dying (to all intents and purposes) on the laboratory floor tended to by Sarah Jane and the Brigadier. When Sarah Jane cried – “A tear, Sarah Jane? No, no, don’t cry…” – I cried with her, and that’s the sort of bonding experience a child has with a character and an actress that is never broken.

After Pertwee left, I rejected the “new” Doctor on principle and stopped watching soon after (lured away to the dark side of ITV by Space: 1999). But that had never happened the previous year with the changeover of companions, and that’s because as sad as I was to see Jo depart, it was impossible not to be instantly won over by Sarah Jane. That was the sort of effect that Elisabeth Sladen seemed to have on absolutely everyone.

I wasn’t watching the show when eventually it was Sarah Jane’s time to leave (in many ways, I think my sub-conscious refuses to believe she actually ever did leave), but I watched and really liked the attempted spin-off K9 and Company in which Elisabeth Sladen was quite the best thing and totally the star – I thought at the time that it was such a shame her one shot at solo success seemed to have come to nothing … It was lovely to see her reunited with Pertwee one more time in the 20th anniversary special The Five Doctors, where she gamely threw herself down a slight incline on a Welsh hillside for old times sake in order to contribute one last “cliffhanger” to the show. Of all the companions that the Doctor ever had on those classic years, she was the one everyone remembered, and everyone liked.

If there had been no more to Sarah Jane’s story, and Elisabeth Sladen had stepped away from the limelight from then on, then Tuesday’s news would have been a surprise, and rather sad for nostalgic reasons to those of us with 35-year-old memories of her – but it wouldn’t have been as deeply shattering as it actually was. And that’s because Sarah Jane’s – and Lis Sladen’s – finest hours were yet to come.

When Doctor Who was revived in 2005 after 16 years of cancellation, showrunner Russell T Davies was careful to keep away all those accumulated years of show mythology away from the screen, lest the show choke to death on its own history and alienate the new generation of fans it needed win over to succeed. Other than the Daleks, the Tardis and the Doctor himself, this was to be a completely new show. But even Davies couldn’t resist the allure of Sarah Jane, and in the new show’s second season he brought back the character (along with K9) for an episode called School Reunion which is still one of the best stories they’ve done.

The best special effect in that episode was Lis Sladen herself, who had somehow defied time and looked not exactly the same as she had in 1974 … but instead, somehow better and more beautiful than ever. How could you not look at her, talk with her and spend time with her and not decide that what the world really needed more than anything else right now was a full-on series of Sarah Jane Adventures? And so Sarah Jane became the Doctor figure to her own group of young companions, and Elisabeth Sladen was shown to be what we the fans had known all along: a true star in her own right, the greatest of all the companions, and the rarest of them – the companion who could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Time Lord himself as an equal. She had a cool car, sonic lipstick, a great leather jacket, could outpace her young co-stars in a full-on run down the street – the woman was a marvel. Not just for her age, but for someone half her age and then some.

In many ways, The Sarah Jane Adventures (SJA) has been closer to the spirit of the original classic Who than the newly regenerated Doctor Who series that needed to be bigger, bolder, deeper, more action, more FX than ever before. I never hesitated to recommend SJA to anyone and everyone, and never saw it as “just a kids show” any more than I had the original classic Who show: with its focus on Earth-bound adventures, SJA was very like Pertwee’s UNIT era, and there was a genuine sense of fun, enjoyment and lightness to the show which, one suspects, started at the centre with the star herself. Not that it was afraid to go to deeper and darker places itself when it needed to – one of the final season stories, about Sarah Jane’s adopted son Luke leaving home, touched some very complex and disturbing emotions for children and adults alike of abandonment and the fear of moving on, growing old, no longer being needed.

The show also allowed the show to reconnect with its past in some lovely moments: Nicholas Courtney’s last screen appearance as the Brigadier before his own death earlier this year (and as one piece of small, cold comfort, at least he’s not here for this week’s news – it would have broken his heart if he had been); David Tennant’s last screen performance as the Doctor (it was filmed after he had officially regenerated in the main series); and in the final season, not only Matt Smith popping up to continue the tradition, but the return of Katy Manning as Jo Grant after nearly forty years. To see Sarah Jane and Jo finally get to meet, talk, share notes on their lives and on the Doctor was an extraordinary moment of closure for any long time fan.

And it’s also the clue that shows how and why Sarah Jane – and Lis Sladen – is so very special to the history of the show and to the hearts of all long-time fans. The Doctor Who companion is always meant to be be the point of audience identification, the one through whose eyes we see the extraordinary character of the Doctor and his adventures. Thanks to her unique association with the series and her unswerving love and cheerleading for the show throughout, Lis Sladen was the ultimate success in achieving that.

My favourite moment of SJA is a quiet side moment, when Sarah Jane is in the middle of a typical hyperactive adventure which has taken her on board an orbiting alien spaceship. She suddenly looks out of a window – we see her face from the other side, with the glass overlaying a lovely reflection of the planet Earth over her face. Lis Sladen’s look at this moment is wonderful – literally, full of wonder – and quite beautifully perfect. “I never thought I would see that again,” she says to herself, the character having felt that her space travelling days ended with the Doctor – just as fans had thought that it had all come to and end in 1989. But they hadn’t, and it was a shared moment between character, actress and fans that showed that sometimes dreams can come true and good things do happen.

Sarah Jane Smith cried with us when Pertwee left; she let rip at the Doctor years later for dropping her like a stone at the end of The Hand of Fear. She showed how being touched by travelling with the Doctor changes you, how life is never the same afterwards, and how going back to “ordinary” just isn’t an option. Not everyone gets to go on to save the world (a lot) as Sarah Jane did, but a touching coda to the Matt Smith/Katy Manning story in SJA gave name checks to the Doctor’s other Earth-bound companions going on to do extraordinary things, such as Tegan fighting for aboriginal rights, showing the profound effect of the Doctor’s influence on others in the show’s universe.

But it’s not just in fiction that Doctor Who has this power. It’s also touched and transformed the lives of many people in real life too: Russell T Davis and Steven Moffat might very well not have been inspired to be writers without the show seizing their imagination as children and showing them what was possible; David Tennant might never have been seized by the desire to act if not for having a childhood dream of being the Doctor himself one day. Countless other fans have grown up to be writers, novelists, magazine editors and even scientists because of the show. This is true for all of those of us who have been genuinely touched by the show and its characters and all the actors and production staff who have made it over the years. Once you’ve immersed yourself in the world of the Doctor, somehow reality isn’t quite the same again: ordinary just isn’t good enough, and has to be made better. It’s the sort of real life inspiration that moves mountains and changes worlds.

All this was just as true for Elisabeth Sladen: her life was forever changed by her years travelling in the Tardis, even if it had started off as just another acting job. She didn’t mind one bit how the show shaped and changed her, but instead embraced it and ran with it and was forever the show’s biggest fan, loving Doctor Who old and new – and the show loved her in return.

And so did we.

Having written about being offline for a week, and saying that I didn’t really miss the social media side of Twitter, Facebook, email and the like, I’m now going to look as though I’m going back on those thoughts.

Kew Gardens - April 2011

After my internet connection was restored I had a terrific weekend – ironically by being out of the house and offline for most of it. But ironically, the Saturday outing was a direct result of having my internet back in the first place, as I was able to spy an invitation from my former COI colleague Sebastian Crump asking if anyone was interested in tagging along to Kew Gardens at the weekend. Already signed up was his lovely wife Jessica, and Ann Kempster of GCN who I know quite well from our online dialogues but had never had a chance to properly meet.

Kew Gardens - April 2011

Seb and Ann are keen photographers, and I like taking pictures as well although sometimes I get out of the habit and need to be nudged back into the groove. A visit to Kew Gardens was just such a nudge and I was keen to take advantage of it and try my hand at taking a whole load of photos.

Kew Gardens - April 2011

I’m very pleased with the results; they’re posted over at Flickr (more are being added as I get around to them) and a few of them are included in this post to whet your appetite and hopefully lure you over to check out more of them.

Kew Gardens - April 2011

Thanks to Seb for the invite, and to him and Ann for the inspiration – seeing them at work showed me true dedication to the photographic cause and got me working away as well, even I managed only half the haul that Ann did. And thanks also to Jess for being such great company, who indulged us and put up us clowning around with our cameras!

Kew Gardens - April 2011

Ann’s photos put mine to shame – check them out in her sets in her Flickr photostream – and I’m sure Seb’s will be too when he catches up, but he works on a 7-week turnaround time for new material!

So, last week I was knocked offline for almost a full week by a broadband outage. Did you miss me? If you say no, I warn you that I shall be terribly hurt and upset.

There’s no terribly interesting backstory to it. I woke up on the morning of Friday, April 1 to find my internet connection wasn’t working (a particularly cruel April Fools’ Day joke.) I reported it to my ISP who patiently explained that their ‘process’ required 48 hours of testing before anything can happen, which was disappointing – even more so because it was actually 72 hours later when they finally got back to me to tell me that they had discovered a fault on the phone line. And that meant it wasn’t their problem anyway after all, and that I now had to call BT about it. Naturally, when I did, the (very friendly and efficient) BT Care line told me it would be 48-72 hours to arrange an engineer to visit – it was liking wading through treacle.

Astonishingly I got a call just three hours later from a BT engineer standing at the door wanting to come in. Hurrah! I honestly can’t speak highly enough about BT’s service in this, much-maligned though I know they often are. They fixed the fault, only to discover that the fault that had been detected was a fault with their phone line fault detection system and nothing at all to do with my loss of DSL. They went away job done but my problems still persisting, and I had to get back to my ISP … who patiently explained that their ‘process’ required 48 hours of testing before anything can happen. Sounds familiar? ISP, I dub thee Groundhog Day. Two days later and they were back in touch to say that yes, a fault had been found – with their supplier. Specifically, at the BT exchange. So now it was back to BT, although at least this time it was for the ISP to arrange and manage. I found (by chance) that my broadband was back on Thursday evening, six hours shy of a full week’s outage.

My ISP (whom I shall not name) seemed surprised at how frustrated, irate and impatient I was during this time, as though really a week’s outage was perfectly ordinary, common and reasonable. I don’t know, maybe it is – I’ve not had any problems before with which to compare (the service from the ISP has been bullet-proof and exemplary up till now, so really I’m only grumpy about their fault handling response and support.) Over to you to decide on that one.

In truth the main reason why I was so frustrated about the outage was that it meant I couldn’t research and write various time-sensitive articles that I had agreed and been contracted to write. Not only could it lose a job, but it also meant I was letting people down – and the one thing that gets me stressed and anxious more than anything is the feeling of letting people down, of not delivering something that I’ve promised. Of course it wasn’t my fault, no one was going to blame me for such a force majeure, and I’d immediately emailed and tweeted (thanks to my iPhone’s 3G connection) when I knew I was going to be offline, but I still felt bad about causing problems for other people. In the end I was able to do damage-limitation via a very long and tiring stint on Friday after the connection was restored; it would have been far worse and in many ways irrecoverable if the outage had persisted over a second weekend, so really I should feel this was a narrow escape.

All that backstory over with, I did find the whole experience of being forced offline for a week to rather interesting from a detached, intellectual point of view.

For one thing it made me realise just how fundamentally intertwined my computer now is with the internet. That wasn’t the way as recently as 3-4 years ago (I was a late broadband adopter) when the dial-up process kept the two distinct: the always-on nature of broadband means that there is now no longer any significant boundary where my computer ends and the internet takes over. They are the same. Or at least, they are until the internet disappears and suddenly 75% of the things you take for granted at your keyboard disappear with it. Not being able to look up even the most basic information stopped me from writing because I would obsess about little factual research details and feel stymied until I was able to look them up and verify the answer. Some programs started to malfunction or perform really badly without internet connectivity (my writing program, the magnificent Scrivener, started taking five minutes to boot up because it was trying to ‘phone home’. As soon as the internet was restored, the same program and project files took 5s to launch.) It made me start to shy away from even starting up the computer, because I knew the irritation of continually starting to do something only to realise that it had an internet component to it that made it non-functioning for the time being would start to drive me mad. Best to just stay away altogether. Strangely, the sense of the computer being “cut off” extended to even features not affected by the broadband outage: since the loss of DSL cut me off from iPlayer, my subconscious wrote off watching TV on my Mac which extended to overlooking the fact that the EyeTV application relied purely on its own digital tuner and was unaffected by the broadband. It took me days to get back into using it.

I found I was continually bugged by not being able to look up something about a TV program I was watching or a radio program I was listening to. The continual exhortations on BBC programs to access that show’s web pages became actually deeply annoying and I would start to shout back at the announcer “Well, I would if I damn well could, wouldn’t I?!?!” My sensitivity to not being able to follow up anything online made me highly sensitive to just how prevalent the web is now in almost every part of the media, and finally gave me a taste of what it’s like to be “digitally excluded”. Which just makes me wonder how that group of people who say “I’m not interested in the Internet, never will, and won’t try it” manage to maintain that worldview without being browbeaten into it. (This is different from those who are excluded because of lack of availability of local broadband services, of lack of finances to fund the necessary hardware or service, or technophobia pertaining to the use of computers – all of which would genuinely stop people responding to these prompts to “see our website”.)

My humour wasn’t improved by the way my ISP’s telephone support line continually prompted me to visit their support website and manage my fault from there: that really was rubbing salt in the wound! Another factor that was causing me some anxiety was that the day the broadband went out, I had been due to report the non-delivery of two items from Amazon.co.uk – and without internet connectivity there was no way of doing this. Would they use my failure to report the missing items in a timely fashion for so long as a reason to doubt my honesty in the matter? (When I did get back online and reported the items, Amazon.co.uk replied within minutes, apologised for the delay and instantly ordered replacements which arrived on the Monday – flawless customer service and a lesson once again to retailers everywhere.)

Those were the undoubted downsides of the whole experience, but more surprising were the upsides and the things that I thought I would miss and yet actually became irrelevant.

For the first couple of days, I reacted to the loss of Twitter, Facebook, email and all my RSS feeds like any other addict cut off from his pusher – and was climbing the walls. But I missed Twitter and Facebook far less than I thought I would, and even my RSS news feeds slipped away from my mind after a while. It became rather peaceful and relaxing to have the information stream turned off and not to have to worry about keeping it up. There is great tranquillity in not knowing anything – “you don’t miss what you don’t have”, in other words, so the fact that I was missing out on things didn’t matter as long as I didn’t know about them in the first place. However, reality did start to seep back in toward the end when I heard some startling news about COI that I could only follow up properly to find out the details once I was back online (Mark Lund leaving abruptly last week and the not entirely unrelated news that the Public Expenditure Committee has called for more work on the Tees report on Government communications before it will accept the recommendations to replace COI with a Government Communications Centre).

It was nice to be occasionally “missed” on the social networks, and I was able to keep track of any direct mentions and respond to them on my overtaxed iPhone, just as I was able to monitor my email inbox for anything critical and to use it to let people know why I was offline. But otherwise, if I’m honest, I didn’t miss the social media nearly as much as I thought I would – it was a nice break. That said, it’s also nice to have it back!

One thing that the offline hiatus did prove to me, however, was just how “attention deficit” I’ve become over the last couple of years. Increasingly I find that I only half-watch any TV programme at best, and that quite often I’ll wonder off during an ad break to do something online – to check my email, for example, or to look up where I’ve seen a particular actor before – only to then get caught up doing something else and fail to reconnect with the TV programme when it returns. I’ve seen more “half programmes” in the last year than ever before in my life, since I’m usually quite a nerd when it comes to paying attention to a show. You could argue that the fault lies equally with the TV shows which these days appear to be universally made for audiences with the attention span of a gnat, but what the outage proved to me was that, absent the lure of “just going online for a second” on my Mac or iPad, I quickly reverted back to my old habit of watching a programme properly, without distractions, to the end.

Depressingly this return to better viewing hygiene proved entirely temporary and the very first evening my broadband was back I managed to spectacularly fail to watch most of the TV I would otherwise have concentrated on. At best, I half-listened while at the keyboard. (In my defence, this was when I was having to get quickly back up to speed with my backlog of commitments and do my damage-limitation 24 hours of catch-up, so it was rather forced on me.) Still, it’s a lesson – and I’m now actively trying to limit my use of online material during the evening if I’m supposed to be doing anything else. It’s just too easy to get distracted with the net.

As a by-product of that last observation, I think I’ve realised why the recent BBC4 Danish crime thriller The Killing (or Forbrydelsen we true fans like to smugly refer to it) had such an impact on me. As 20 hours of densely-written subtitled drama, it’s not the kind of thing you can kid yourself into thinking “I’ll just check my email but I’ll keep listening” – because the minute you move away and stop reading the subtitles, you’re completely screwed and lose the plot in seconds. Even with French or German productions I can just about busk it for a minute or two without subtitles, but Danish? Or Swedish? Not a chance. With the extra bonus of it not having any commercial breaks, The Killing was consequently watched with a laser-like intensity virtually unique in recent years of TV viewing, and I think it made for a richer, deeper, more immersive experience that made it so much more special as a result. Not that I’d recommend the BBC to switch to all-subtitled programmes from here on – I have my limits when it comes to ‘reading” television shows.

All in all, when I’ve been able to step away from the frustration and sense of missing personal deadlines, it proved to be an interesting week of observations about the place of the internet in my life at the moment – for good and for ill. Naturally I’m happy to be back online and able to access all the research information I need for what I jokingly refer to as my “day job” – it did get deeply frustrating not being able to get on on so many fronts last week, which was like being in suspended animation at times – but I also think that a few offline breaks and some paring back on online usage would be no bad thing, either.

Of course, ask me in a month and I’ll doubtless be so hyperactive online again that unplugging will once more be viewed as next to death!

The headlines are already trumpeting the end of the Central Office of Information after the publication today of the long awaited review of government direct communication and the role of COI, written by Matt Tee, the outgoing Permanent Secretary for Government Communication.

COI to be replaced” … “axe COI” … “COI review recommends abolition” … “Government set to scrap COI” … “Plans to scrap the COI” … “COI to be replaced“.

Pretty unequivocal then, right? COI is gone, dead, kaput, and a big black cloud of depression hangs over the heads of everyone who works there today. Well … No, it’s never quite as simple as that. And the clue lies in the headlines with the foresight to use “replaced” in the title.

The report is actually recommending that a Government Communication Centre (GCC) be set up as a Crown Corporate Service within the Cabinet Office, comprised of a core staff of 150 housed at a location to be decided according to greatest cost efficiency, with a “pay as you go” staff of around 250 working on direct communications projects (campaigns to you and me) on a fee basis – which is the model that COI has already been operating on for a couple of decades now. That makes a total of 400 staff, which is only a little less than COI as it stands today (450) after last year’s 40% redundancies.

The rest of the proposed GCC’s work would be carried out via “theme teams”: the exact composition of the themes are not defined in the review but examples given include “Britain in the World” and a real life example from Scotland. COI already operates ‘themes’ in many parts of its operation and Tee seems to have picked up this idea and run with it: doubtless the new implementation will be more specific and sharply defined than the ‘catch-all’ themes COI has been working with till now, but the idea remains the same. Staffing here would be six teams of about 80 people – 480 in total – that would be “employed by” [sic] the Government Communications Network (GCN) and based at the host departments, which would be the people left over from the trimming down and culling of communications staff throughout Whitehall; COI staff numbers, having already gone through 40% cuts, would expect to get away relatively lightly this time although there will undoubtedly be some new layoffs to endure.

COI’s traditional role of procurement seems to be surviving: “benefits of aggregated central procurement for marketing and communication services are clear and quantifiable” says the review, which also confirms that the controversial “payment by results” be introduced. As expected, the US Ad Council model is booted out in short order, Tee concluding “It would not be workable, nor desirable, to attempt to wholly replicate the Ad Council in the UK” – although two paragraphs on the review then suggests “forming a Common Good Communication Council, separate from but supported by government” which has a hint of the review being forced to include this lifeline to the idea despite its previously stated main finding. One feels that this venture will be spun off and allowed to fail, discrediting the idea without dragging down the main GCC itself.

My own area of digital is covered in the report, with a commendable and long-overdue recommendation that “digital considerations should be built into all communication activity from the start” – something that has been fought for over a decade. Otherwise though the report seems to back off from too much discussion on digital, perhaps wary of stepping on the toes of Martha Lane Fox whose own Directgov 2010 and Beyond: Revolution not evolution report last year has now born fruit with the announcement of the Government Digital Service which will merge Directgov with the Cabinet Office Digital Delivery and Digital Engagement teams, to be “the centre for digital government in the UK, building and championing a ‘digital culture’ that puts the user first and delivers the best, low cost public services possible.” Presumably the GDS’s focus is on citizen experience online, while GCC will retain COI’s existing role for direct digital communications (campaigns), but there may be more tweaks to come there in terms of who gets what territory. For example, GDS might want to take ownership of the COI Digigov team led by Dr David Pullinger, which has produced guidelines on everything from accessibility to SEO and browser testing. [Full disclosure: I authored the guidelines on Service Availability for the Digigov team while at COI.]

The rumours that COI could be morphed into a central comms team for all of government – that I firmly blogged against last month – have happily proved to be far off the mark. Indeed, the structure suggested by Tee of having departmentally-based theme teams and only a core GCC presence is very much driven by the sort of concerns I was raising in that post, with Tee clearly differentiating between the necessary in-house media/comms teams (which stay) and the digital communications teams required for campaigns (which would move to departmentally-located GCC theme teams), so Tee has carefully seen and avoided the pitfalls that I feared. In fact this is a very assured, well-thought-out, well-informed review as a whole and the work of someone who knows his stuff and who has been listening to the right people. Those are rare traits in government, and makes Tee’s imminent exit from Whitehall all the more lamentable, although his resorting to the term ‘exited’ referring to the people whose careers his recommendations are terminating is a lamentable cold-blooded lapse.

The review even tackles head on the question of whether or not to simply continue calling the new body ‘COI’ after all. Tee decides not, and actually makes a strong point about why a new name is needed: “I have concluded that, because what I am proposing in this review is a sufficient change in the way that government approaches direct communication, retaining the brand would suggest a greater continuity with the recent past than I think is helpful. I have therefore concluded that on establishment of the GCC, the COI brand should cease to be used.”

In other words – we could just call it COI, but we’re not going to (for good reasons.) But isn’t that quite a different matter from “scrapping” or “axing” COI? Repositioning, reorienting, renaming, rebranding, refocussing perhaps – but it sounds much more like a relaunch, not a termination notice. It’s sad to see a 65-year-old corporate history dispensed with at a stroke of the pen, but it’s hard to argue against the idea that COI is increasingly hostage to that legacy. Indeed, I’ve blogged several times that I thought COI would continue in some form but most likely with a new name, and this seems to be exactly that scenario after all. I admit I had a wobble in my confidence about COI’s survival after last week’s announcement of Mark Lund’s unexpected resignation as COI CEO, but now the review has been published this is looking rather brighter for all concerned.

However, the biggest thing to keep in mind at this point is that this is a review by a senior civil servant, and not yet a government decision. Nothing is set, nothing is decided until Francis Maude, minister for the Cabinet Office, makes his response and his choices known. Of course it would be strange for a review to get to this stage without broadly being in line with what the minister wants to do, but you never can tell and it’s best not to count your seats until the votes are all in. For now, all Maude says is: “I am grateful to Matt for the work that has gone into this report. I will discuss the recommendations with ministerial colleagues and the government will publish a full response in due course.”

At the risk of flogging a subject that is dear to my heart but maybe not to those of everyone who reads this blog, I’ll undoubtedly return to the subject of the review in the coming days and weeks as I digest it some more and have time to think about its deeper implications, and as Maude’s response and more developments are announced. For the time being, this is very much an “off the back foot” impression based on a very quick read of the report, but it’s the best I can do on the day right now.

My own view on this is that it could still go pretty much any direction, depending on what changes are picked up, which recommendations are adopted and how they are introduced and implemented. Nothing is yet set in stone, everything is still in flux and uncertain – although at least a large chunk of the ‘known unknowns’ is now out in the daylight for us to cogitate over.

So keep on watching this space for the next chapter.

Hmm, the last few posts here have all been on a very similar governmental theme; time to vary the tone somewhat, I think.

Last week, I bought, read and finished an Apple iBook for the very first time.

It’s not, I hasten to add, the first e-book that I’ve purchased and read on the iPad – but all the others have been through the Amazon Kindle app, whereas this was of the Apple-flavoured variety instead. I’ve preferred purchasing e-books via the Kindle for various reasons, starting with a greater range of books and generally lower prices. Initially as well I didn’t have iOS 4 on my antiquated iPhone 3G (because of early performance problems with the upgrade on that phone) which meant that I couldn’t run the Apple iBooks app on my phone and hence couldn’t take my reading out and about with me unless I took the whole iPad instead. That’s no longer an issue and the latest iOS 4 and iBooks work a treat even on my venerable hardware.

However, the Kindle still seems to me to offer a greater assurance of longevity: Amazon’s core business is still books and it had made Kindle e-readers available not just for its own hardware but also for Apple’s iOS, Android systems, Macs and PCs. Apple, by contrast, see e-books as a very, very minor outlier in their activities and the books they sell can only be read on iOS devices – not even Macs. Of the two companies, Apple is by far the more likely to suddenly decide the book market isn’t worth the trouble and make one of its autocratic decisions to pull out and take its iBooks app with it, leaving tus with books that can no longer be read. Amazon, on the other hand, would have to fold as a company before that’s likely to happen.

There’s also a matter of principle involved in my choice of Kindle over iBook: the fact that Apple are trying to extend their “30% of all in-app purchases” to “30% of anything that is sold to be consumed on the iPad.” Amazon have got around the surcharge till now by not using the Apple-run in-app purchasing system that processes payments via the iTunes Store: instead, purchases are made on the Amazon web site and then ‘delivered’ onto the iPad directly by the app’s network connection. Apple aren’t amused by that dodge and are clamping down, potentially meaning that Amazon will either have to cough up or be booted out of the App Store. As far as I’m concerned, this is a nasty, vicious move by an Apple that’s increasingly believing in its own hubris and thinking it can do whatever it likes. Presumably Apple have sought legal advice on this and have been assured that they’re not breaching monopoly or restraint of trade laws in the various countries in which it operates, based on the fact that it only affects Apple’s own iOS devices and that other mobile devices are available, hence no monopoly. But frankly I’m astounded: if it looks like restraint of trade, and smells like it, then surely that’s what it is. I’d go so far as to say it comes over like a Mafia protection racket, where a business is told to pay over a large chunk of change or be forced out of business in the gang’s territory. Apple fan I may generally be, but not when they start behaving like hoodlums.

So with all this swirling around, how come I suddenly switch from Kindle books to iBooks? Well, it’s a one off; the price was the same on both Kindle and iBooks, and I happened to have a Christmas gift voucher for the iTunes Store hanging around, so I thought I’d give it a try. Actually the real tipping point was when I initially picked up the first chapter of a iBook through the ‘get sample’ button, read it … And then, there at the end, was a simple button to buy the rest. It’s a minor thing, but it was just so easy to press the button and carry on reading there and then rather than duck out and faff around surfing over to Amazon to log on and buy it and then back to the Kindle app to download it. It’s moments like this that Apple actually merits that cut of theirs.

It’s also the little details that continually set Apple hardware and software apart and make them so damnably good even when you’re feeling mad at the company. Even though Amazon had a head start with the e-reader concept, Apple have come with a version that is just that bit classier, slicker and, well, better than anyone else. Again, the devil’s in the details and in many ways they’re superficial cosmetic details at that: the wood panelling in your ‘library’ of e-books; the way the pages of the book you’re reading actually look like the pages of a book; the animation when you ‘turn’ a page. The type is just that bit better rendered and the balance of line length and white space around the borders just perfect. It feels like it’s been designed by a book lover.

Apple also manages to put in that attention to detail in the user interface: the presence of a slider bar at the bottom tracking where you are in the book; a line telling you how many pages there are left in the current chapter; a nice search utility in case you need to go back and find and double-check that vital clue five chapters ago; and, if you do navigate away from the current page, a link pops up to return you to the previous location without your having to remember page or chapter numbers or insert a bookmark of your own.

Apple’s iBooks also has “page numbers” whereas the Kindle has previously relied on “paragraph numbers”, a less immediately friendly or helpful concept and one of those minor details that knocks you out of the “book” paradigm. After criticism that it’s impossible to cite the page number of a reference from an e-book, Amazon have recently upgraded their Kindle software so that it does now display an absolute, unchanging page number from books formatted to support it; Apple’s iBooks, on the other hand, might have ‘page numbers” but they are not absolute and will change depending on the size and style of the typeface used on the display. Technically that’s one-up to the Kindle, except that in practice most people will be fine with the more friendly “relative” page numbers of iBooks.

Having read books in both Kindle and iBooks formats, I have to say that the iBooks environment is just that bit better, more comfortable and more stylish; but that the Kindle is fine and does its job okay as well. It’s just surprising that Amazon haven’t studied the little details of the Apple app and been “inspired” to introduce their own variants in the Kindle by now.

But having spent a few days happily reading a distinctly lightweight thriller (a review is over on the Taking The Short View blog if you’re interested), when I came to the end I found that I was actually rather relieved to be able to put aside the iPad and go lo-tech for my next book selection.

The e-book route is fine when you want something immediately or if your local book stores don’t have it (and with Borders long gone and Waterstones looking shaky, finding books locally is an increasing problem) and I was pleased to make use of it in this case. E-books are also great because they takes up no storage space, and my flat is awash with physical books already. But even so, and even having had no trouble reading the e-book version (indeed, enjoyed it), when I decided I wanted to read the next one in the series I ended up picking up the second title as a paperback in an honest-to-goodness bookshop while I was still reading the first, instead of buying it as a follow-on e-book.

I’m still trying to work out why I felt that sense of relief at the thought that I could go back to proper paper-based media – I hadn’t expected it to be quite such a powerful feeling as it was. There are certain practical advantages to the paper book, such as being able to read in the bath, but that hardly explains the relief I felt, surely? At the moment I’m putting it down to the fact that so much of my time is spent looking at screens that it’s the relief of “a change is as good as a rest”. I use my iPad throughout the day to check emails, tweet, check-in with Facebook, surf and follow my RSS feeds that the addition of book reading on top just felt a little like the device was smothering me. I need the break every now and then or else like every such suffocating relationship I’ll begin to resent the iPad as a whole, and I really wouldn’t want to fall out with it.

Nor do I think it’s the iPad itself per se that I need the break away from – it’s the whole screen-based electronic media that I need time away from every now and then, so buying an Amazon Kindle doesn’t seem like it would be any help and hence is off the agenda for now (I’d been vaguely considering buying one since Christmas.) Audiobooks are a possible alternative, although I have to confess that I find it very hard to stay awake listening to an audiobook or play for longer than 15 minutes, or else I’ll get distracted by visual stimulation and forget to listen to the book.

On the whole, though, it seems that for the time being at least I just like to pick up a good old fashioned paperback book when it comes to a taking a restful break. Obviously I’m not yet as 21st century as I like to think I am.

So, Mark Lund has resigned as Chief Executive of the Central Office of Information (COI).

On one hand it’s no surprise that he’s going – I’ve hinted at it in this very blog on several occasions since it was announced that there was going to be a government review of marketing and communications, and of COI’s role therein. A Chief Exec can get away with one major review and overhaul when he comes in; at a stretch, he can get away with a second six months later if the situation demands it. But three in 18 months? One’s credibility with the organisation rather crumbles, as does – I would imagine – one’s self-belief. There’s only so many times you can sell the “this time we have the right vision!” battle cry of Henry V to the troops without looking or feeling rather silly: either embarrassingly accident-prone or terminally inept. (In Lund’s case I genuinely feel it’s more a case that he’s been a hostage to fortune, with bigger things happening than he can do anything about personally.)

There are other reasons why it was inevitable he would go. For one thing, this is no longer the job he signed up to do or indeed was selected as the right person for. Back in 2009 COI was closely modelled along the advertising agency approach and so it made sense that someone who had been a success in that world (Lund was previously the Chief Exec of ad agency DLKW, the ‘L’ of which was even his initial) would make a good COI head. But now, whatever finally emerges from the forthcoming review of government communications that Lund is co-author of, it’s clear that COI will be a profoundly different sort of organisation going forward in 2011, and an ad man is probably not going to be the right fit. The job he’s been doing over the last two years – various emergency fire-fighting campaigns, restructuring, downsizing and making half the organisation redundant – is simply not what he signed up for and I can’t imagine that it’s been very enjoyable even for the type of personality who clearly loves a challenge.

Most of all, I suspect Lund’s just had enough of the layers of politics and bureaucracy and wants to get back to the simpler days of just going out there and “doing it”, hence the COI press release quoting him as saying “I can’t escape the fact that I am at heart someone who wants to run their own business more than anything else” as it confirms he is leaving to start a new venture in the private sector. Lund’s far too diplomatic to say anything antagonistic as he leaves, but that’s a pretty big signal that he’s had enough of this public sector rigmarole and wants back into the simpler life of cut-throat commercialism.

The press release goes on to say that “Work is now underway to recruit Mark’s successor” and “to ensure a smooth and successful transition” before Lund leaves at the end of May – a little over two and a half month’s time. But at this senior level, it’s hard to see how anyone will be recruited and in post this side of September: in both previous changes of COI executive there was a lengthy period where the Deputy CEO acted up in the post for anything up to six months. Unfortunately the person who was Deputy CEO on both those occasions – Peter Buchanan – has now himself left COI and the post of deputy has been unfilled ever since because of the civil service recruitment freeze. The next level down, at management board, is also looking a bit threadbare after various departures over the intervening months including the Business Director Ian Hamilton and the Director of Digital Alex Butler. So who is going to mind the shop in the meantime? Perhaps it points to the fact that no one is needed to serve as an interim CEO: perhaps the still-undisclosed government communications review is going to remove the current management structure of COI (chief executive and management board) much as happened to Directgov last year, and COI is going to be moved into the Cabinet Office and run by someone there? Ironically another of the obvious candidates to then run COI would have been the government communications permanent secretary – but Matt Tee announced he was leaving sometime ago and that the post is not being refilled, so that’s another dead end.

Overall this does appear to leave the whole process of the review, the subsequent implementation of reforms, and the running of COI in quite a mess, which is why the timing of Lund’s departure is so surprising. You’d have expected him to wait for the unveiling of the review, and even to put in some of the foundations for whatever restructuring of COI the review indicates. Charitably you can theorise that he’s already hung on longer than he ever meant to, and that each new review or delay in getting a decision from the Minister for the Cabinet Office, Francis Maude, has kept pushing Lund’s personal plans back and back till the point when he has to say “This could go on forever, I just have to draw the line somewhere.” Still, it feels like there were better timings available to him: syncing with Matt Tee’s own announcement, for example; or waiting for the review findings to be published and then saying “I’ve done my bit, laid out the plan, time for new blood to take it forward.” As he’s leaving to set up his own shop, it’s not like he was having to decide on a once-in-a-lifetime job opportunity that he had to take right now or lose the chance forever.

When I found out the news this morning (ironically while out down by the bank of the Thames having a sandwich in the glorious sunshine and blue skies, couldn’t have been further away from worries of the civil service) I confess that my gut reaction to it was “this is bad.” And I’ve usually been one of the more optimistic and upbeat writers about the situation facing COI and government marcoms going forward. But this news today worried me more than it should have done given that I’d already concluded Lund would be moving on sooner rather than later: inevitably the trade press are going to paint this as signs of an imminent collapse of COI and the death throes of the organisation, and for the first time I started to think that maybe they could be right. Certainly I find today’s news hard to spin into an “actually, this could be good news, don’t count out COI just yet” train of thought. From the outside, it genuinely looks and sounds like an implosion for the first time.

However some messages from friends who still work at COI have already assured me “We aintent dead (yet)!” [sic] and “Indeed, far from it!” and I definitely feel that within COI itself there’s a lot going on, new avenues opening up, new opportunities presenting themselves that give the rank-and-file great hope and optimism that the light at the end of the tunnel is finally in sight and that the light is not, after all, an oncoming locomotive bearing down on them. I dearly hope that this is the case, that the review delivers a new framework from which COI can carry out all this new and exciting business, and that most of all the uncertainty is finally brought to an end and that people get to know just what lies ahead and can get on and do it. Maybe today’s news is that “darkest before the dawn” moment and that the review, when it’s published in the next few days (surely?!), will be the sunrise of daybreak.

For myself, I’m relieved to be long out of it – the ongoing stress and uncertainty would have seriously got to me by this stage. It’s bad enough even as just a bystander with no direct personal involvement any more, because I still rather feel like I’m living it with the friends and former colleagues I left there. And yes, I do feel a bit “guilty” at having bailed out, taken the money and run at the end of 2010 while leaving others to soldier on through the intervening months. I wish I was there to support them and work with them for whatever the future holds for COI, but at the same time know that it’s best for me that I’m not. The one thing I realised when I was leaving COI was just how much those who were staying were really enthused, bright and energetic – and unrelentingly optimistic about what the future held in store for them and for the Interactive team; and how, after 11 years there, I could no longer summon up the same reserves to match and just needed to get out into fresh air and clear my head.

Perhaps that state of mind is not all that dissimilar to Mark Lund, having made his own decision today.

links for 2011-03-03

I’ve always said that the books and DVDs of Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister should be issued to anyone joining the civil service, as the best (humourous) how-to and survival guide there is to life in Whitehall.

Even today, with all the changes that have been introduced in the three decades since the show was first made, it’s amazing how prescient and accurate it is: its 30 minutes on the national ID cards pretty much wrote the outline for the whole sorry story arc of the now-dead 21st century policy. It had stories on cost-cutting, austerity and ministers giving up their official cars long before Cameron and Clegg made that symbolic move after the 2010 election. And just last week I tuned in to an episode on UK Gold to see a story about UK involvement in the global arms trade, and I swear that the arguments in the show uncannily replicated those in the news broadcast on the same day about British sales to Libya dominated the headlines. Truly, Yes, Minister is the closest thing British TV has ever had to The West Wing in terms of conveying hard, topical issues in a funny but informative manner.

The show is a bit of a Whitehall Rorschach test as well: politicians would say “yes, civil servants are exactly like that, always stopping you from getting on with things” while dismissing the representation of weak, dithering, vote-led politicians as rather silly. But ask a civil servant and they will tend to have precisely the opposite view.

Certainly Margaret Thatcher said that Yes, Minister‘s Sir Humphrey was spot-on accurate to the type of obstacle she had to deal with every day; she may have been joking, it was always hard to tell with Mrs T at the best of times. But certainly by the time 1997 rolled around, Tony Blair seemed to completely believe that Yes, Minister‘s view of civil servants was absolutely accurate and indeed had to be tackled head-on from the start. Upon arrival he found the incumbent Cabinet Secretary Sir Robin Butler so little in tune with what he was trying to do – and so clearly not busting a gut to achieve any of the Prime Minister’s instructions – that the man was out shortly thereafter, although after ten years in the post he was about due to leave in any case. His successors Sir Richard Wilson and Sir Andrew Turnbull were scarcely more popular with Blair and had even shorter tenures, until finally the Prime Minister happened upon Sir Gus O’Donnell, the current incumbent, and a man who sees it as his duty to be in absolute lock-step with his political master – just the sort of senior civil servant to appeal to Downing Street.

Blair’s (and subsequently Gordon Brown’s) tenure in Number 10 led to increasing fears of ‘politicisation’ of the civil service – it you weren’t enthusiastically in step with what Labour were trying to do, then you seemed to be eased sideways or out regardless of any lip-service to the impatiality of the service. Or, indeed, the civil servants were by-passed and sidelined altogether: hence the rise of the Special Policy Advisors, leaving civil servants altogether as just faceless facilitators of the routine side of things as so ably lampooned in the biting satire The Thick of It (which while fun, and a definitely-required update to the 80s Yes, Minister, is too busy being witheringly funny to be as useful as the earlier show as an actual how-to/survival guide.)

As concerned and scandalised by this ‘politicisation’ as some politics wonks were in the Labour years, it was still within the bounds of civil service impartiality. While you might be able to ease a civil servant out, you still couldn’t control who would replace them because of the impartial selection and appointment process. But now, under the Coalition, it seems that even this Maginot Line may have been breached.

MP Tom Watson, writing in the obviously highly political Labour Uncut site, has posted answers to FOI requests he’s been making about apparent breaches to civil service recruitment principles – he says that he’s uncovered 30 of them, and that presumably doesn’t include the appointment of former Taxpayers’ Alliance spokesman James Frayne as the (supposedly politically impartial) director of communications at Michael Gove’s Department for Education. According to Mr Watson, other recent appointees to the civil service that have come direct from Conservative or Liberal Democrat political positions include Katharine Davidson, Michael Lynas, Kris Murrin and Rishi Saha – the latter as head of the government’s digital communications after working on the Conservative election campaign at Millbank and previously standing as a candidate for the party in Brent South in 2005.

Mr Watson, in his blog piece, writes: “how could cabinet secretary, Gus O’Donnell, have allowed his appointment to take place?”, adding: “Will civil servants be privately wondering why Gus O’Donnell has not acted to stop these abuses?” When questioned about the appointments, Sir Gus says that he has looked into them and had defended them as entirely proper and verified.

Does any of this actually matter? Shouldn’t we expect any incoming government to want to install some friendly faces who can be trusted to be committed to getting things done: like a new houseowner, they want to come in, redecorate, hang new curtains, put the furniture where it suits them and not the previous owners, right? We’re all the same with a new home. Except that the problem with that analogy is that of course the party of government is not the owner, merely the tenant. Any government, no matter how successful or long-lived, is only ever renting – and so the property is not theirs to simply make any changes that it wishes without clearing it first with the landlord (which would be us, the public.) Ad hoc changes on the fly have repercussions: it’s surely partly Labour’s “easing out” of non-likeminded people that after thirteen years left the Coalition in a position where the civil service looked like hostile territory to them upon arrival, and which justified (in the Coalition parties’ minds at least) urgent and dramatic action to redress the balance by bringing in the ‘right’ sort of people by any means necessary. The roots of the current ‘scandal’ of politicised appointments, therefore, lie rather more in Labour’s four-term ‘redecoration’ and reinvention of Whitehall than the likes of Mr Watson and his former ministerial colleagues would probably care to admit.

The British system has always been that of an impartial, non-politicised civil service, one that continues even when governments fall. It’s not the same in the United States, where whole tiers of the civil service up and leave when the administration changes. In order to do this, there is a 7-week interregnum between the election and the installing of the new government, during which time there’s a frantic round of hiring anyone who has a pulse to fill the tens of thousands of suddenly-vacant positions providing that they have the right political allegiance. The American system emphasises the political need to get things done fast, while the British system emphasises continuity, constant professionalism and an aversion to recklessness albeit at the cost of speed.

It’s surely possible to make the case that the British system is now simply antiquated and out of date, that it needs a kick up the backside if it’s going to be able to deliver the government’s policies with the speed and dedication necessary for the modern world of 24-hour news; while to have a civil service that needs to be convinced first before it’ll start thinking about moving into action could prove disastrous. The fire and passion of true believers getting things done, versus the experience and in-depth knowledge of the impartial civil service who abide by “first do no harm”: each have their strengths – and undoubted weaknesses.

Ideally you’d want to create a service that blends the strengths of both approaches (even if such attempts often end up with the weaknesses of both instead.) That’s what led to the rise of the Special Policy Advisers (SPADs) in the Noughties, a way of adding a political layer without radically changing the underlying bureaucracy; unfortunately the whole approach became discredited over the years to the extent that the Conservative election campaign had to promise to do away with these political appointments on the public payroll – and David Cameron quickly got his fingers burnt when the press roasted him about his ‘personal photographer’ being paid out of the Number 10 budget and had to put him straight back on the Conservative Party books.

So that avenue has been closed up, and the only way the Coalition sees to get that politically-energised and aligned personnel is to bring it into the civil service itself – hence the appointments that we’ve seen over the past year. But this approach has its consequences too: with top jobs going to those “in the party” all the time, what would be left for the dutifully impartial civil servant to aim for career-wise? All the best people will leave if they want advancement and success – or will need to choose a political party as a dance partner. Furthermore, a creeping politicisation will end the impartiality of the civil service: if you allow the top appointees to take overtly politically positions and action in public, then you’ll be powerless to complain about or discipline anyone in the lower echelons who follows suit. We’ll swiftly lose any pretence of a politically-neutral civil service and find ourselves with American-style wholesale clean-sweeps after every administration-changing election, and with it that loss of knowledge and experience of how to get things done that is built up from careers lasting lifetimes.

We might not like it, but we have to admit that it’s the result of past actions on the part of political parties, the media and indeed periodic bouts of outraged public opinion about SPADs, spin and expenses over the last decade. The question is whether we now care enough to do anything about it – to recognise it and talk about it openly rather than let the civil service be twisted and bent out of shape by the slow build-up of dubious precedent as has been the case since the 1980s. If things are going to change, at least let’s think and talk about it properly first.

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